Romantic Circles Blog

The ecological thought—a ghastly fugue

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Hi, hey, hulloo, hello, and hail...

Kurt Fosso's recent posting got me thinking about the gloss of the Rime. There may be several ways of reading Coleridge's frequent glosses and frames. There's the possibility of a sort of “naive-sophisticated” frame—maybe we should call it Level 1—where the frame says, in effect, “What you are about to read is made up.” (This may be Mike Wiley's hypothesis about the raven poem—hi Mike!) Then there's a Level 2 frame, which uses the effect of Level 1 in a paradoxical way, to disinhibit the reader: “Don't worry, this is just a fiction.” Then I guess there's Level 3, where Levels 1 and 2 are used to create an “impossible” subject position that combines utter literalness and aesthetic distance. Level 3 frames are popular in horror movies, where the director or other spokesperson says “Warning! This is going to be horrific,” and then it is. This seems to combine Level 2 and Level 1 frames. Something like Level 2 (if not 3) happens in “Kubla Khan” when STC says “Don't worry, this isn't really a poem, just a psychological curiosity, a sort of brain scan.” Weave a circle round the poem thrice, as it were...

Question: are animals and irony always on opposite poles? Wouldn't this reproduce the human–nonhuman boundary? Animals = authenticity, irony = humanity...?

I'm not sure exactly how the gloss works yet regarding our ecological theme, but I have some ideas, thanks to Kurt, which I'll try to post.

On the subject of animal-poems, animal-as-poem, etc., there's Ted Hughes's “The Thought-Fox,” which makes a big deal of this metaphor. Heideggerian readers can knock themselves out on line 1: “I imagine this midnight moment's forest.”

I started another blog dealing with philosophical, scientific, political, and aesthetic issues on ecology. It's called Ecology without Nature. All comers welcome. It features a link to a talk I gave recently on cognition and poetry (and their environmental implications).

As I thought about where we are with this reading of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I started to think about the poem's use of the word “ghastly.”

Here's our dictionary again:

OED “ghastly,” a. 1. a. In early use: Causing terror, terrible (obs.). In mod. use (cf. 2): Suggestive of the kind of horror evoked by the sight of death or carnage; horrible, frightful, shocking.
b. colloq. Said hyperbolically of persons or things objectionable on various grounds: Shocking, ‘frightful’.
2. a. (Influenced by GHOST: cf. quot. 1711.) Like a spectre, or a dead body; death-like, pale, wan. Of light: Lurid.
b. of a smile, a grin. [Hello, I say to myself...]
c. said of immaterial things.
3. Full of fear, inspired by fear. Obs.

If ecology doesn't speak about ghosts, it loses a crucial dimension of reality. The psychic dimension is not an optional component.

If at bottom the ecological thought is the (traumatic) encounter with the strange stranger, then ecology is uncanny all the way down. This intuition is confirmed by a brief study of Freud's essay “The Uncanny,” in which he makes potent references to experiences of being in an environment—lost in winding streets, lost in a forest. (Robert Smith eat your heart out.)

Where Coleridge's poem reaches its most “supernatural,” in its excess over the natural, is precisely where we find the ecological. Recursively, the Mariner talks of his telling:

“Oh shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!”
The Hermit crossed his brow.
“Say quick,” quoth he, “I bid thee say—
What manner of man art thou?”

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 7.574–590)

It is precisely when the Mariner talks of his uncanny compulsion to repeat that we glimpse the ecological dimension of his tale's very form. This form comes again and again, like a viral code. Isn't that the disturbing thing about nature—that it keeps on going, and going, and going, like the Energizer Bunny?

Yet what we habitually call “nature” seems to be sandwiched between a bottom level that is pure automatic self-replication (the genome); and a top level that is also curiously repetitive—the psychic. It is as if when we speak of “nature” we edit out these viral levels. Both levels are “ghastly,” since this word names both flesh and immaterial things. This ghastliness is both alive and dead at once—I'm tempted to say undead. A “ghastly” light is lurid—death-colored and wan, or glowing with too much life.

The tale itself is a “selfish meme” that takes over the poor body of the Mariner. Isn't that the minimum definition of a psyche—an alien force that possesses us, makes us do its bidding? Isn't the psyche itself a kind of partial object that takes the body over and dominates it?

And isn't this the truth of the “selfish gene,” too—that life forms and their environments (which they co-create and co-sustain) are basically vehicles for gene propagation? So from the gene's and from the psyche's points of view, we are the same—we are zombies, living dead.

So the tale, portrayed here as a kind of vomit that grips the Mariner from the inside until he ejects it—or even as viral DNA whose vector is the Mariner's speech—marvelously combines both genomic and “memetic” levels.

This would be true of the title of the tale itself. “Rime” is rhyme, and hoar-frost (OED, “rime,” n1.1, n.2.a.). Like rime, viruses are basically gigantic, monstrous crystals. The moon in the sky in part 4 “bemocked the sultry main / Like April hoar-frost spread” (4.267–268). It is as if, like a crystal, the viral structure appears to repeat at different levels of the text.

(Actually, “rime” n.3 is Old English for number, or reckoning. We are dealing with iteration, with mathematical structures—crystals and rhymes, and viruses. And thus with the possibility of iterations that don't stop—with infinity. See the Infinite Interlude.)

A “ghastly” tale indeed (7.584), a tale of animated bodies, a “ghastly crew” (5.340). These are not souls that consist of some ethereal substance from beyond “this side” of reality. Instead, we witness souls as ghasts, as specters—as a disturbing distortion of this side itself. The “Christian soul” which the sailors perversely impute to the Albatross is the second of these “ghasts”—the first being the Mariner himself.

Wordsworth criticized the poem for having a wholly passive protagonist. Yet it is this very passivity that shows us the zero degree of ecological being, which is irreducibly a being-with. And a bisection of living tissue by these monstrous, replicating hosts—genome and psyche.

The ghastly intimate, yet external—extimate—quality of the tale appears in the face of Life-in-Death, “that woman” from the “spectre-bark” (3.189, 3.202). She emerges from a distance, not out of a beyond, for she exists on this side of reality. That's what's so disturbing about her. As the Mariner watches the “speck” of the “spectre” ship growing ever closer, it's like looking down a microscope at an “animalcule” that gets ever bigger as the magnification increases; peering with irresistible fascination at a squirming life form, its cilia wafting “Like restless gossameres” (3.184). The death ship is already within the Mariner's field of vision. It does not appear out of nowhere, but is simply there when the Mariner looks westwards. There like he is: “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1).

On one level, then, the “spectre” ship and its crew are the gaze of science, looking back at us from the point of view of the object of science itself. This code becomes very explicit in Frankenstein. It's not the content, but the authoritarian coldness, of scientific discourse, which the ecological thought must melt. Life-in-Death “thicks man's blood with cold” (3.194).

Life in Death

Life-in-Death is not a figure of horrifying power, but of horrifying vulnerability. She is both psyche, pure appearance—red lips, yellow locks and all—and infected flesh—“Her skin was white as leprosy” (3.192)—naturally we expect skin as white as snow, or something. She is an animated doll, and fantasy realized in the external realm, a nightmare. It would not be hard to dismiss her as a misogynistic cartoon of Phallic Woman.

Yet this dismissal would miss her vulnerability, her passivity (yes, her cartoon-like, puppet-like appearance), which is precisely what is so disturbing about her. After all, she is casting dice for the souls of the crew, which implies that she might lose. Life-in-Death is a bacterial Cinderella, and isn't Cinderella's passivity also what disturbs?Like the Mariner himself, then, whom the Wedding Guest starts to dread with his “skinny hand” and deathly appearance (4.224–227).

Life-in-Death is a being from our inner space, yet also from external, extra-psychic space. It is as if the poem is daring us to eject her, to vomit at the sight of her. She is no petrifying Medusa.

Life-in-Death's very face appears eaten away by disease. Not that we know for sure that the face is indeed diseased. Very skillfully, and economically, Coleridge superimposes pure feminine appearance (“As white as”) and the self-replicating, asexual subroutines of deadly infection (“As white as leprosy”). Above all, Life-in-Death is a face, a face in all its terrifying carnality. This is the face of undead life, of life as undead. The face of a psyche, and the face of viral replication. Not a cute Disney “animal” face. A strange stranger face.

What a gift this face is for the ecological thought!

Can we possibly listen to this face, talk with it, coexist with it? In a softer key, part 4 encourages us to think about lingering with disgusting beings. Can we linger here, at the palpitating heart of the nightmare?

What we need to examine is the pornographic “cold” with which Life-in-Death “thicks man's blood” (3.194)—it is precisely the reaction of the masculine subject to this exposed, vulnerable being that is the problem. This is a poem about phobia and intimacy, intimacy-phobia.

The ecological thought consists in a progressive coming to terms with abjection, disgust and grief. And with the zero degree of life as monstrous, random replication.

In fact, rather wonderfully, the theoretical framework of the ecological thought replicates the “top” and “bottom” levels of “life”—the viral and the psychic. It's a strange brew of life sciences and Lévinas, Dawkins and Derrida.

With its witches' oils (part 2) and its water snakes (part 4), the Rime approaches, then backs away from, the frontal horror of Life-in-Death. Let's linger with her face some more, in the next installment. For the encounter with the strange stranger is exactly this encounter with a nightmarish, inconsistent, incomplete being that gives the lie to metaphysical terms such as “organism,” “life form,” “mind,” and “person.”

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Animals in poetry

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Tim Morton’s blog entries on Coleridge’s Rime have me thinking about animals and representation. Does an animal depiction in a fable or allegory retain some trace of its animal referent-sign’s animality? Or, put differently, can animals be used in such a way that their animal nature is eradicated and they become fable as such? Can their materiality, that sublime ‘other side’ of the metaphorical equation, be supplanted by cultural reference—reference toward a human moral, political dispute, event, and so on? What then of Akira Lippit’s intriguing Freudian notion of “animetaphor”:

The animal world opens up behind the dreamwork, establishing a kind of originary
topography shared by human beings and animals. . . . [E]very dreamer carries the trace of animality. . . . [Moreover, o]ne might posit provisionally that the animal functions not only as an exemplary metaphor but, within the scope of rhetorical language, as a kind of originary metaphor. One finds a fantastic transversality at work between the animal and the metaphor—the animal is already a metaphor, the metaphor an animal. (1112-13)

All the more reason to question whether fabulous animals, the animals of fable, ballad, parable, and axiom, are non-animal or only incidentally this or that species or genus. One doesn’t want to confuse representation with reality, to be sure. But we also want to be careful about too quickly determining just what that “reality” or referent is or can be, perhaps especially when the metaphor or other figure being used is an animal. Can such a figure ever be univocal?

Take, for instance (and even as an instance sine qua non and ne plus ultra), Coleridge’s “The Raven,” a poem I plan to write on at some length later—and to blog about briefly and provisionally here and now.

In “Coleridge's ‘The Raven’ and the Forging of Radicalism,” Michael Wiley sagely argues that Coleridge faux-Spenserian fable “comments upon the workings of literary forgery,” inspired in large part by the contemporary forgery of the Shakespeare Papers. (Wiley also points out that Coleridge rather explicitly associates his Rime with the Chatterton and Macpherson forgeries). According to Wiley,
“The Raven,” with the letter to the editor intact—and with Coleridge's name again absent in the Morning Post publication—tells a metatextual joke, though in service of a serious seditious point. The text says of itself: this is a forgery, which speaks dangerously about present political and social issues in the guise of speaking about the Spenserian past, and which treats language and authors in the ways that actual forgeries do. (808-9)
Wiley concludes that Coleridge’s fable demonstrates the manner in which authors and readers could be in on the joke—a clear joke—and that a poem that ostensibly claims to be about the Spenserian past “nonetheless might be about the late-eighteenth-century present—that the displacement, while protecting the writer, would fool no one” (809).

It’s worth quoting the poem in its entirety, so we can all be on the same page. First the curiously animal-related letter to the editor that preface the poem in the Morning Post:

I am not absolutely certain that the following Poem was written by EDMUND
SPENSER, and found by an angler, buried in a fishing-box—
“Under the foot of Mole, that mountain hoar,
“Mid the green alders, by the Mulla's shore.”
But a learned Antiquarian of my acquaintance has given it as his opinion, that it resembles SPENSER's minor Poems as nearly as Vortigern and Rowena the Tragedies of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. (quoted in Wiley, 803)
The relevance to current forgeries, and to the shared “joke,” seems clear given the mention of the Shakespeare Papers (Vortigern and Rowena) and the sly, antiquarian-informed suggestion of the text being by Spenser—or rather, as much resembling that bard’s “minor Poems” as Vortigern resembles any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But why the provenance of an angler’s “fishing-box”? Why situate the poem there, amid the hooks and other equipment used to lure and catch not readers (as such) but fish? Certainly we might now see the poem itself as a bit of fishing, with its barbs and hooks clearly evident. But is this site related not just to fishers of men (so to speak) but to those animals, especially given the text’s own focus, or seeming focus, on a pair of English birds rather than bards?

Underneath an old oak tree
There was of swine a huge company
That grunted as they crunched the mast:
For that was ripe, and fell full fast.
Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:
One acorn they left, and no more might you spy.
Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:
He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!
Blacker was he than blackest jet,
Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.
He picked up the acorn and buried it straight
By the side of a river both deep and great.

Where then did the Raven Go?
He went high and low,

Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go.

Many Autumns, many Springs
Travelled he with wandering wings:
Many summers, many Winters—
I can't tell half his adventures.

At length he came back, and with him a She
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.
They built them a nest in the topmost bough,
And young ones they had, and were happy enow.
But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He'd an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven's own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.

The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.
The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush'd in fast;
Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast.
He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls--
See! see! o'er the topmast the mad water rolls!

Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,

And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank'd him again and again for this treat:

They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET!

What a finale! Wiley hears Spenserian echoes in the opening description of the oak, and an obvious Burkean ring to the swine (Burke’s “swinish multitude”). Thereby, the oak becomes a symbol of Britain, its navy, its monarchy (witness Charles II’s Order of the Royal Oak). Yet, as Wiley confesses, the poem’s other signs, animal as well as human, “are less definitely attributed,” including the curious reference to a “fox,” deciphered by Carl Woodring as a direct political allusion to Charles James Fox. Hence, Wiley focuses instead upon the raven’s “general, public role” in political fables of the century, from “Tale of the Raven and the Blackbird” (1715) to the “Raven's Proclamation” (1746).

But while the raven, like the bulldog and the oak, had a “public role”—as indeed did exotic animals like the tiger (see here Ashton Nichols’s “An Empire of Exotic Nature” )—what about the raven as an animal deserving of or exceeding such casting and acting? What in the bird’s perceived ‘nature’ (and its natural history) makes it more or less suitable for such satire or fable? And what sort of animal, animetaphorical meaning, if one can put matters that way, does this bird present in Coleridge’s poem, akin (distantly akin, twice removed) to the albatross in the contemporary Rime? Here’s a bird with an attitude, at least! Does the raven of this poem mean only what Wiley, Woodring, and other readers have astutely discovered in terms of the era’s politics? Would we err in seeing this poem’s avian figure as in any way a relative of the poet’s albatross or nightingale? In my next blog I’ll try to explore this question, hopefully with some help from kind readers and fellow bloggers.


Akira Mizuta Lippit, “Magnetic Animal: Derrida, Wildlife, Animetaphor,” MLN 113 (1998): 1111-25. See also Lippit’s Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000).

Michael Wiley, “Coleridge's ‘The Raven’ and the Forging of Radicalism,” SEL 43 (2003) 799-813.

Ashton Nichols, “An Empire of Exotic Nature: Blake’s Botanic and Zoomorphic Imagery,” The Reception of Blake in the Orient, ed. Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki (New York: Continuum, 2006), 121-33. Blake’s visionary distrust of the natural (seemingly external) world did not prevent him from “celebrat[ing] its physical beauty, its sensuous details and its crucial role in our awareness of our human place in the cosmos” (132).

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The ecological thought, part fourth

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We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.66)

We made it! And, as you probably guessed, we're going to look at the various significances of “hailing,” not to mention “in God's name.” This means getting busy with Heidegger and Lévinas.

Note that the Albatross is still an “it.” (See my previous posts for analysis.)

On the shelf above my computer a printout from the Oxford English Dictionary has been sitting since February 2005. It's a printout concerning the word “Hello.” Yes, I've been meaning to think this through for three and a half years! Thank you, Romantic Circles!

Here's the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: “An exclamation to call attention; also expressing some degree of surprise, as on meeting any one unexpectedly.”

The dictionary continues:

A. as int. a. Also as a greeting. [Earliest citation 1883. Earliest citations are given in brackets below.]

b. Used as an answer to a telephone call. [1892]

B. as n. [1897]

Hence hello v., to shout hello!” [1895]

Things have changed somewhat in the new online edition. For a start, citations have been pushed back to around the time of the second version of our poem! The sense of “hello” as a greeting was emerging while Coleridge was refashioning The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

A. int.

1. Used as a greeting. Also in extended use. [1827]

2. Used to attract attention. [1833] [In the Althusserian sense: as when a police officer in an British comedy says “Allo, allo, allo! What's all this then?”] [“Hi” has something of this resonance]

3. Used to express surprise or to register an unexpected turn of events. [1838]

4. Used to answer a telephone call. [1877]

5. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Used to imply (sometimes disbelievingly or sarcastically) that the person addressed is not paying attention, has not understood something, or has said something nonsensical or foolish. [1985] [Let's call this one the Californian hello]

B. n. An utterance of “hello”; a greeting. [1854]

Notice how the definitions are assigned discrete numbers (five of them), as if the new dictionary were giving up on trying to explore the meaning of the word deeply. The telephone-answering “hello” is now sense A.4. rather than sense A.b. The sense that was given a place at the top of the hierarchy in the second edition (“An exclamation to call attention...”) is now assigned position A.2., and the dictionary gives no overall sense. Notice also the frequent “Used to”s—it's as if the dictionary is backing off defining words.

Is this a function of our neighbor-(in)tolerant, postmodern-totalitarian world? I would like to see whether these features—replacing metaphorical hierarchy with metonymic lists, giving up on an “umbrella” definition at the top of a hierarchy, and referring to English as if it were spoken by some exotic subject of anthropological research (all the “used to”s)—are widespread in the new dictionary. Isn't this seeming backing-away from hierarchy, from saying what you think, urgently recursive in the case of “hello,” the very word we insert so casually into every interaction to welcome, to start communicating, to hail the other?

Don't we lose the richness of the second edition's definition—this is no lament for a lost presence, but in a way, for a lost absence, for a lost sense of the unexpected: An exclamation to call attention; also expressing some degree of surprise, as on meeting any one unexpectedly.” The very phrasing here enacts the surprise it's describing. There's the pause that turns out to be a slightly negative “moreover“; a tentative approach to the existence of an other; the final encounter with “any one.”

We shall shortly find these issues key to the ecological thought that emerges like a viral code in the lines we are interpreting.

I would like to restore to this most tritely well known part of Coleridge's masterpiece the full weight, the gravitational field, of the profound ambivalence that marks the seemingly casual appearance of the Albatross. I believe that if we don't account for this gravitational density, we won't be reading the poem ecologically. It would be far too easy to claim either that the bird stands for Nature, or for Supernature. This is the black hole of the poem. The Mariner just shoots the Albatross, for no stated reason. No meaning escapes from this part. We need to respect the black holiness if we're going read it properly. So to work.

Hel-lo! It looks like “hello” is bound up with the history of telephonics. Strangely, though, it seems telephonic before telephones, as it were. If you express surprise “on meeting any one unexpectedly,” it's as if you are not yet talking with them, but are signaling that talking may or may not happen. It's a word that brings into language the proximity of an other.

It's a phatic utterance, in the language of the structuralist Roman Jakobson. It draws attention to the medium in which the message is transmitted. When you use it sarcastically, in the Californian manner, it's as if you are pointing out some imaginary communications breakdown. I visualize someone knocking on a glass helmet, or holding a telephone away from one's mouth and shouting “Hel-lo!”

(Phatic messages are the essence of what I call ambient poetics, which is the cornerstone of Ecology without Nature. All messages are environmental, because they encode their medium into their form. All art is, to this extent, ecological. Ecology will soon become a term like race, gender, and class, with which it is inextricably entwined in any case—a term you look for even when the supposed content of a text is not environmental per se.)

“Hello” is an etymological variant of “hallo,” which derives from “hollo” (the word in our poem), “hullo,” “hillo,” and “holla.”

Here are the definitions for the oldest variant, “hollo.”

A. int. A call to excite attention, also a shout of encouragement or exultation. [1588]

B. n. A shout of hollo! a loud shout; esp. a cry in hunting [1598] [c.f. “hey,” as in The Tempest, when Prospero and Ariel pretend to be commanding hunting dogs—“Hey Mountain, hey!” IV.1]

[“Hi” coincides with this:


Hunt. Hare


Thei cryed, ‘Hy, hy!’ all at ones ‘Kyll! kyll! for kockes bownes!’


Gentl. Mag.


Hold, hold, 'tis a double; hark hey! bowler hye! If a thousand gainsay it, a thousand shall lye.



Chr. Tadpole

xxx. (1879) 267

‘Hi!’ cried the brigand, giving the mule a bang with the butt-end of his musket. ‘Hi!’



This Man's Wife



It was not a thrilling was only a summons{em}an arrest. Hi!



In Alpine Valley

I. 47

Here, hi! have a cigar?


Daily News

2 Oct. 3/3

A good lunch, and then hi! for the Crystal Palace.]

Hmm, hunting...hel-lo.

It is indeed in sense B. that the dictionary cites our poem:




(1880) 79 But when th' acquainted Hollow he doth heare..He leaues his flight, and backward turnes againe.


Caveat to Conventiclers

4 He was no sooner seated, but he gave a lowd Hollow through the Air.



C'tess D'Aunoy's Trav.

(1706) 9 They set forth lowder Hollows than before, and wished me a good Journey.



Anc. Mar.

I. xviii, The Albatross...every day for food or play, Came to the Marinere's hollo!



Age of Bronze

xiii, The hounds will gather to their huntsman's hollo.

So the conventional way to read the passage on the Albatross would be to see a progressive degradation in communication. First the bird is “ God's name”; then it “came to the Mariners' hollo,” like a hunting dog; then, like a hunted bird, it's shot. It goes from lofty, almost angelic being to hunted animal in the space of a few verses. We descend from hail, to hello, to hi! Or even to oi [1936]!

It would be very easy, in this reading, to conclude that the telephonic hello had turned us away from Being, had turned us all into hunting dogs. Too easy perhaps.

Even the “hunting dog” sense of “hollo” has its ambivalence, between a call to play, and a call to return to the master. Unless play were always a simulation of hunting. Surely the bird comes “for food or play,” not to retrieve other dead birds! It is no hawk. In a sense the sailors themselves are playing, pretending that the bird is a kind of hawk. A pet. Like pretending that a rather ungainly golden retriever were a wolf. Of course the Albatross is “wild,” not “domestic.” But it's not hawk-wild, not majestic-wild. It's ungainly, it's disturbingly wild. It's “abject-wild” (more of this in a moment). Its hugeness is wonderfully captured in Mervyn Peake's illustration of the Albatross hung about the Mariner's neck at the end of Part 2.

Peake's Albatross

Now it seems as if there is a hesitation within the word “hello” itself, a hesitation that addresses (welcomes?) the matter at hand. For you can say “hello” and be speaking to yourself—“hello, how curious...”—as if the expression of wonder at an unexpected encounter (with an other) provoked a self-reflexive version of the Californian “hel-lo”—perhaps a less sarcastic, more gentle version. As if the strange stranger (because that's what we're talking about) provoked a self-reflection that was decidedly not a closed loop, but an opening. Or, better, as if the self-reflection noticed that an opening was already there, as if one had cut oneself and one was looking at the wound. “Hello” is the sound of someone noticing a wound. A gentle wound, perhaps, just a “lapse in being” as Lévinas puts it. Curiouser and curiouser (Alice in Wonderland style).

Then there is the tentative “hello?” that someone utters in a dark room when they are not sure whether anyone is there or not. It's like the echolocation of a bat or the sonar of a dolphin. This can also be a test of the medium of transmission itself, like a “ping” command to a url when you're not sure your internet is working. This hello says “I am here” and “This is here,” at once. Interesting, therefore, that Jakobson suggested that bird cries were phatic in this sense. When a parrot parrots a human word, it's not saying that word, it's saying hello. There's a wonderful ambivalence just within this hello, as if it meant “Is this a medium? Or not?” “Is this thing on?” (The saying of which might activate the realm of meaning, might indeed magically “switch it on” as it were). This is an illocutionary hello that does something in the saying of it, in its very ambivalence. “Is this on?” becomes “This is on!”

This hello, too, has its ambivalence. It appears to begin communication (that's what Jakobson says the phatic function is for—to demarcate communication from non-communication). It's a minimal mark, a sort of on switch. But doesn't the on switch imply the existence of an electrical circuit, a house, a shared existence, a being together? The existence of at least one (more) person? As if the darkness itself of the dark room, the Lévinasian “night” of sheer existence, were already populated, were already a communicative field, an electrical circuit. There is already information-space. Space is already warped by language. The “third” is already in the other, waiting in the darkness, even when there's no-one.

This (co)existence subtends and subverts easy communication, with its inside–outside system. “Hello” implies a pre-existing boundary between information and noise. An unspeakable coexistence.

And there is the “hello!” that summons, like a hunting dog, the other.

When you say hello on the phone, are you saying it in the first, second, or third sense? What kind of mixture?

When you “hail” something “in God's name,” are you welcoming a predictable stranger into an already well established domain? Is the bird an ambassador from God's domain, as it were, or are the sailors ambassadors for God, welcoming a foreigner to their “far countree”? The ecological irony here would be that the sailors are definitely in the albatross's world, a hostile ecosystem. This welcome “in God's name” would then be a colonial greeting to someone who already lived there. The bird should beware, in that case. It is already dead.

Is the hailing therefore already a kind of hunting-dog hulloo? Summoning a predictable object or tool (living or inanimate, already dead) to a predictable place? As when a car mechanic you called on your cellphone arrives on the deserted highway? “Hello! Thank God you're here!” (Again, I find Coleridge's poem weirdly predictive.)

For Heidegger poetry is a hailing (Heil—we can't but help hear the resonances, hel-lo!). This hailing appears to take place in, and/or to establish, a medium, a world. There is a sheen of otherness, a shimmering of the veil as he puts it, in the theater of the Same. The curtain swishes back (hello) to reveal a world.

Now hailing positively implies a lifeworld. A Norse one at that. Like “life” and “world” themselves, “hail” has an Old English root. To salute, to wish welcome, to “hail” is a metonymy of the noun “hail,” which means a mixture of “Health, safety, welfare. In northern ME. taking the place of the native Eng. hele, HEAL” (OED, “hail,” n2.1). The origin of the word is Old Norse, “heill health, prosperity, good luck” (OED). “Heal” or “hele” is an amalgam of health, good fortune, spiritual well-being—there's an integrated world, a horizon of meaning, a mind-body manifold that ecophenomenologists can only dream of.

Perhaps the lifeworld already had some tatters in it by the time “hail” acquired its nautical sense [1546], the sense we still use when we hail a taxi (v2.3, 4 and 4b—the latter being the one we use when we ask “where do you hail from?”). Now we're beginning to pick up a telephonic register—a calling or summoning from afar.

(Irony: when Heidegger says that poetry makes the absence of things present, brings the farness of things near, is he not thus distorting hele and hail and heal-thiness towards its modern, telephonic sense? Take a look at Avital Ronell's incredible The Telephone Book.)

Perhaps, however formal the hello tries to be, however much the ambassadors have prepared the party to receive their guest, there is always the trace of a radical uncertainty, effaced in the pomp and circumstance of welcome, and all the more visible in its effacement. Thus “in God's name” strives to efface this uncertainty, to underwrite the encounter with God's name (I can't help thinking of the welcome to Munchkin Land in The Wizard of Oz!). It interpellates the Albatross into a theistic symbolic order, and thus functions like the police officer's “Allo, allo, allo!”—an expression of predictable surprise, of a crime caught in the gaze of the law. Something fishy is going on in the ice.

This deep ambivalence serves in part to undo the work of “As if it had been a Christian soul.” It is as if the sailors can't tell, or don't want to tell, whether the bird is metaphorically or literally an emissary from God, or actually is God, emerging through the fog. To “hail it in God's name” in this sense might be to think of it as God itself, or himself, or herself, God in person, as person: to ascribe the name of God to the Albatross itself.

For there is yet another hello—the abject hello, the hello we say when we see someone who's already there, whom we do not like, or who does not like us. “Oh, it's you.” Isn't there something like this in the first line, “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1)? He never gave us a chance to say hello. He was already there. Even though we don't technically like or dislike him yet, his presence disgusts and disturbs us. Surely this is not the hello the sailors want to be heard when they greet the Albatross. But perhaps it haunts their hello all the same.

The abject hello is the underside of reverence, the dark, ugly side of hailing. It is what hailing tries to excrete, to maintain its reverent authority.

When we greet the strange stranger, we are embarrassed by the fact that she, he, or it is already there. In the most intimate possible sense, for our existence is coexistence. There is already less of us to go around, and less of the strange stranger. The strange stranger from the first is not an integrated being greeting another integrated being in a more or less well established medium. “Hello” will always contain a trace of an awkardness, even hostility (Derrida: “hostipitality”), which it will struggle to edit out. The smooth, easy-wipe “hello” of a computerized telephone answering system or customer service contains the echo of this awkwardness in its very smoothness.

The sailors' joy and relief (if that is what is implied in their hailing) has an exorbitant element within it. Perhaps it is this excess enjoyment that ends up getting the bird killed. It eats their biscuit worms, shares their world, seems to guide them through the ice. Perhaps their unbearable dependency on it is precisely what provokes the shooting. Or, aware of their humiliation (the bird sees it, even plays along with it), they kill what they welcomed with such relief. We will never know.

There is perhaps an isomorphic backward glance at the end of part 2, when the “death-fires danced at night” in a sickening reel (“About, about, in reel and rout”), and the bird is hung from the ancient Mariner's neck, another humiliation. It could be read as a phantasmagorical increase of the play and fantasy that seemed innocent in the sailors' play with the Albatross. It gets even worse in Part 3, of course, when Death and Life-in-Death are playing for possession of the crew (“casting dice”).

One of the ways in which Nature shuns ecology is in its rejection of the queer Trickster.

The Albatross appears to have come from a beyond, but who knows? Do the sailors know? Is there not some vaguely hidden recognition that the appearance of the bird and the sailors' joy closes off the beyond forever? That the Albatross hails not from a beyond that gives meaning to a world bounded by a horizon, but appears abruptly on this side of a radically incomplete Universe, too close for comfort?

Isn't this how the utterly trite meaning of the Albatross, a karmic weight around your neck, a weight that is detachable from the poem, even, as if this part of the poem were itself the Albatross of the poem—isn't this how the trite meaning captures something profoundly true? That what we are witnessing here is gravity—matter itself, pulling us, pinning us to this side of reality? The horror of fog and mist is that it abolishes the background. Suddenly everything is foreground. The lifeworld goes up in smoke. The apocalyptic curtain is drawn around the beyond. The Albatross comes out from behind the curtain of mist, from out of its endless folds—we have no idea how far it's traveled (or not).

Isn't this anti-Wagner art, where you get to see the curtain wafting around, where you get to see that it hides not a world, not a horizon or a beyond, but a horrifying nothingness in its folds? This is the meaningless contingency in the face of which the sailors desperately try to rig up some kind of superstitious meaning in Part 2.

We are witnessing demystification, yes, but not so that we can see the workings underneath—another kind of apocalypse, and thus another kind of mystery. We are demystified, but there also takes place an “infinitization,” a disturbing appearance of infinity on this side of things. It just “cross[es]” the ship's path, “At length.” No fuss, no bother really—just a reminder that we're still alive.

How do we live in this world, on this side of reality, which is ecological coexistence, so easy to negate with apocalypticism, which now itself takes ecological forms? So easy to imagine the death of humanity, mass extinction—ha, that'll teach those Cartesians! They'll be laughing on the other side of their face when they're dead! Is this why we are writing ecological criticism? To increase our Schadenfreude? Aren't we just like the sailors, humiliated when our dreams (of Nature) are disturbed, wishing not for a genuine coexistence with other beings, but for a return to sleep, to green dreams?

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Emerson and Infinity

While I am working to process Tim's reflections on infinity, a topic in which all Romanticists should take an interest (since the Romantics so often did), I thought I would post a blog-o-sphere version--itself an infinite space!--of an introduction I have recently written for a new series of print-on-demand volumes being produced by a small publishing house near Baltimore. Emerson's thinking is shot through with reflections, direct and indirect, on infinite time, infinite space, and especially infinite possibility. The goal of this new series is to produce inexpensive versions of nineteenth-century editions of the "American Romantics" under the combined rubric of "Optimistic America" and the Brook Farm Revival Series. One interesting aspect of these books, published by G. W. Zouck publishing in Beckleysville, Maryland, is that the publisher will forward a percentage of the profits to a charity that continues in the spirit of the original author. For the essays of the young Emerson, already in production, profits will be sent to Doctors Without Borders and for the Walden edition, to be produced later this year, a donation will go to the Walden Woods Project. So here are some reflections (reproduced with permission) on why Emerson, even at his thorniest and most unreadable, remains crucial for Romanticists--and others--as we enter our strange new century.

Emerson for a New Era

Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of the greatest thinkers America has produced. The decades from the 1830s through the 1860s saw a flowering of Emersonian ideas that helped shape new ways of thinking and produce writings whose powerful currents can still be felt today. Emerson’s optimism and his emphasis on the value of the individual are among his greatest and most abiding gifts to our culture. Thomas Jefferson had told us that all men were created equal and had promised us life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it was left to Emerson to argue that women, African Americans and Native Americans shared the same rights as rich white men in nineteenth-century America. He showed us that freedom of thought was as important as any other kind of freedom, and he taught us that true happiness could come from surprisingly simple sources: our thoughts, our friends, a book, the sunshine. Emerson offered us belief in a divinity that resides in every human breast and a description of our material environment that links us all to the wider world.

Too liberal for the liberal Unitarians of Massachusetts, Emerson resigned from his ministry early in adulthood and never returned to any denomination. He spent the rest of his life on a spiritual quest, seeking truths that would be true at all times in all places, truths that could be understood by any person with an open mind and a generous heart. Emerson placed few limits on the powers of our new nation or on the diverse individuals who contributed to its democracy. “Self-Reliance” was not merely the title of one of his most influential essays; it was also a concept that summed up a complete philosophy of life. Just as each soul was part of the “soul” of the universe, so each American was part of the wider body politic. Likewise, the Emersonian idea of a godlike “over-Soul” allowed a wide range of believers, and even nonbelievers, to participate in new forms of religious, and secular, free thinking.

He broke with traditional systems of his time—dogmatic religion, strict educational rules, and narrow-minded two-party politics—in order to suggest that life presented limitless possibilities. He defined old words in new ways to explain his unrelenting optimism about “nature,” “self-reliance,” “the poet,” or the realm of “transcendental” ideas. For him, words like these encouraged each conscience to override the dictates of traditional rituals and social practices. A personal “inner voice” was Emerson’s guide to such intuitive knowledge, as it had been for Socrates. This voice came from a divine spark in all of us, our connection to the infinite Over-Soul; as a result, “A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the divine Soul which also inspires all men.”

Emerson sought to stake a prophetic claim for American culture. By 1836, Emerson came to be associated with a loosely organized circle of intellectuals, reformers, and writers who united themselves under the term “Transcendentalism.” He preferred the term “Idealism.” The essential point was that this innate spark of divinity resided in each individual and could be accessed by a transcendent self. The individual soul could thus be identified with the Over-Soul, the world soul, or perhaps even “God” in its ability to grant us true freedom: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds.”

More than any other figure, Emerson came to be seen as the father of Transcendentalism in America. Though many other thinkers contributed to the movement, it was Emerson’s lectures and published essays that gave form to this sometimes-amorphous range of ideas. In the process of finding his own brand of religion, Emerson had developed a set of philosophical ideals for others to follow. He eventually came to preach a gospel of almost secular salvation. The Transcendental Club, which he helped to form, was a gathering of individuals who were generally suspicious of all organized religions. Indeed, they were skeptical of organizations of any kind.

Emerson’s idea of America influenced essential ideas in others: Henry David Thoreau’s vigorous naturalism and his commitment to civil disobedience, Walt Whitman’s self-conscious and first-person “I,” Margaret Fuller’s early brand of feminism, George Ripley’s utopian experiment in rural and communal living, and Bronson Alcott’s student-centered view of educational theory and practice. Emerson also saw the imaginative artist as a kind of prophet. He says that poets—we would now say "creative writers"—have a crucial role in culture as the makers of newly minted meanings. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and their successors down to the present day would all in different and, sometimes contentious, ways agree.

Emerson’s own words became a central aspect of his legacy. In his manifesto “Nature,” he described his own moment of epiphany: “Standing on the bare ground, —my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” In the same essay, he notes that each of us needs to be similarly remade, “So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.” he concludes by claiming that this idealistic enterprise has a practical result: “Build, therefore, your own world.” In “The Over-Soul,” he is even more theologically controversial, “Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul. The simplest person, who in his integrity worships God, becomes God.”

Emerson was one of those titanic figures in intellectual history whose thoughts were adopted almost immediately. His theological speculations, for example, lie behind a whole range of modern ideas about the dangers of extremism. People of differing religious, spiritual and ethical traditions might live together, accept one another’s differences, and even learn from one another. He preached against the truth of miracles. If we need miracles, we can find them within and around ourselves every day. The sun comes up each morning on schedule; the rain falls to fill the oceans and nourish the world; the life force pushes blades of grass through the sidewalk and brings new beings into existence; your hand opens and closes: these are all Emersonian miracles. What about truths contained in other great world religions? They are all in play for Emerson: the wisdom of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the truths of the Jains, the Sufis, and the Zoroastrians. Emerson knew all these forms of belief well. He helped to introduce them to an often-skeptical American public. He sought a very modern goal, how to be spiritual without being religious.

Thoreau was Emerson’s first, and perhaps foremost, disciple. Emerson gave Thoreau a series of touchstones on which to build his own, more practical, philosophy. Thoreau built his one-room cabin at Walden Pond on land owned by Emerson. Likewise Whitman, our most American of poets, fashioned himself directly out of Emerson’s description of the “poet.” Whitman became the spokesperson of a democratic people, a seer of all things who imposed no restrictions on the worlds he described: the smallest details of everyday objects around us, the lives of ordinary people, the beauties of the human body, and the often closeted truths about our sexuality. Emily Dickinson may not have ever had a public presence, but her cryptic poems sharply reflect the concerns of her Emersonian neighbors up the road in Concord and Boston. Oliver Wendell Holmes went so far as to claim that Emerson was the author of “our intellectual declaration of Independence.” More recently, Lawrence Buell sees Emerson as a founder of one unique strain in American thought, “the environmental imagination.” Emerson’s essays continue to influence a series of authors who link the nature essay to personal memoir: Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, David Quammen, and Bill McKibben.

We need Emerson now more than ever. We need his optimism, his idealism, his belief in the individual, and his confidence that all of us can fulfill our varied potentials. When Thoreau says,” the sun is but a morning star,” he is expressing pure Emersonian optimism. When Gandhi challenges us to “be the change we wish to see in the world,” he is adapting a central ideal of Emerson. When Martin Luther King says that he has an optimistic dream of racial equality (in the midst of an admittedly racist nightmare), he is drawing on Emerson’s idea that one single human mind is often where the world starts to change, for the better. Emerson does not offer us self-help. He offers us self-knowledge and with self-knowledge, as even Socrates taught, can come much wider knowledge of the world.

Read Emerson's essays and feel the surging energy that swelled around Concord and Boston starting in the 1830s. This set of ideas, about self-reliance and love, about compensation and friendship, can help us today toward a future that is ours to shape. If, as Emerson believed, our world is “the best throw of the dice of nature that has yet been, or that is yet possible,” then it is also true that we should “require the impossible of the Future.” For Emerson, and for those of us who still dare to call ourselves optimists, an impossible future is possible. We should all get busy.

--Ashton Nichols

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The ecological thought—an infinite interlude

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Cantor set

I've been writing a bit about infinity, so I thought it might be good to take a step aside and look at this some more.

Imagine a line. Now remove the middle third. You have two shorter lines with an equal-sized space between them. Now remove the middle thirds of the two lines you have left. Keep going!

You are creating something like a Cantor set. It was discovered by the brilliant mathematician Georg Cantor in the 1880s. Cantor got into a lot of trouble for his thoughts on infinity. But his discoveries laid the foundations for set theory, Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, and Alan Turing's thinking on Artificial Intelligence.

If you think about it, the Cantor set contains an infinite number of points. Yet it also contains an infinite number of no-points! It appears to contain two different infinities. Does this make it weirdly larger than an infinity of points alone?

Talk about holding infinity in the palm of your hand. A two-dimensional version is known as Cantor dust: infinite dust, and infinite no-dust. If you make a three-dimensional version, you will produce something like a Menger sponge, a fractal object with infinity spaces and infinity points. You can't squeeze a Menger sponge. But there's something there all the same.

Menger sponge

The strange stranger I referred to in the last posting is like the Menger sponge. Somehow, we have discovered infinity on this side of phenomena.

Who or what is a strange stranger? The category includes, but is not limited to, “animals,” “nonhmans,” and “humans.” In The Ecological Thought I refrain from using the word “animals” (unless in quotation marks). “Nonhumans” strictly refers to the set of those entities who are not Homo sapiens.

Now behold this Menger-sponge-like strange stranger, Astrophyton darwinium:

Astrophyton darwinium

O happy living thing! What a wonderful drawing by Ernst Haeckel, the man who gave us the word “ecology.”

Alain Badiou refers to his Lacanian “set theory” as “pre-Cantorian.” (See Kenneth Reinhard's essay in The Neighbor.) Now I'm not convinced you can actually have pre-Cantorian set theory—this would be like having pre-Newtonian gravitational theory (strike one against Badiou!). But you can have a non-Cantorian set theory. This has to do with whether or not you accept Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis, a project that ended up driving him insane. The Continuum Hypothesis states that there is no set whose size is strictly between the set of integers (1, 2, 3...) and the set of real numbers (rational numbers—integers and fractions—plus irrational ones like pi). As far as I know (I'm no mathematician) the issue is open right now. I'd like to know more about this, and I'd like to know why Badiou and Lacan appear hostile to Cantor.

Intuitively, I find Cantor's view of infinity (nay, infinities) very satisfying. Since I am by no means a mathematician I can't explain this properly. Still, I believe that the kind of infinity to which Lévinas refers when he writes of the other (autrui)—my strange stranger—is not “beyond” this side of reality, if by “beyond” we mean an outside. An outside would imply an inside—and this would imply a metaphysical system. Inside–outside distinctions are the basic ingredients of metaphysics.

I find the idea of an ontologically incomplete Universe where there is no neat holistic nesting of parts in wholes very satisfying, though at present I lack the precise language in which to articulate this idea.

Rigorous materialism must take seriously the seemingly theological idea that infinity is on this side of reality. I believe that work on infinity will counteract the Heideggerian tendency in ecological discourse. Since I hold that we cannot avoid a form of fascism unless we circumvent Heidegger, I also believe that this work is of the utmost political significance.

Burying our heads in the vulgar materialist sand, or the utilitarian environmentalist sand, won't do.

In general, we humanities scholars need some remedial math and science lessons. I'm dismayed that I have nothing but vague intuition to go on in suspecting Kenneth Reinhard's essay (noted above) of Badiou hagiography—mostly the preponderance of “According to Badiou”s in it.

I would love it if a kind Romanticist would help me. Paging Arkady Plotnitsky...

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The ecological thought, part third

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At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had ben a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.63–66)

Greetings all. Thanks so much to Ash Nichols for his comment on my previous, concerning the ways Romantic poetry can get its natural history wrong. I'm going to have to think about this one before I reply to it, so stand by. But I think my paradoxical reading (below) might go some way towards addressing the last couple of remarks—that the traditional reading of the shooting of the albatross has to do with disrupting some kind of natural continuum. Ash very reasonably wonders why this is any worse than, say, shooting a turkey for Thanksgiving.

And thanks to Ron Broglio for his comment on “worlding” and Uexküll, Heidegger's source. It's not surprising to me that Heidegger edits animals out of the worlding club. Only humans can have a world, while animals are “poor in world,” German Weltarm. Like most continental philosophers, he wants to assert that there is a radical discontinuity between humans and animals. In a recent anthology of such writing, I was amazed to find a still-living writer who proudly “rejects” the theory of evolution. This to my mind is like rejecting the three-sidedness of triangles!

The haughtiness with which this rejection is performed is quite extraordinary to one who has spent several months reading all the Darwin he could get his hands on. It's like something out of Gulliver's Travels.

So then, to work...

It struck me that while the sun is personfied as “he” (see “Part Second” below), the Albatross is reified as an “it.” Given the isomorphism between the two phrases (“Out of the sea came he,” 1.26 / “Thorough the fog it came,” 1.64) I don't think we can ignore this. Coleridge does indeed emphasize the inert density of the sheer existence of the life form. This gives “As if it had been a Christian soul” the full weight of its disturbing “As if”-ness.

The “As if” has the force of a fetishistic disavowal: “We knew very well that the Albatross wasn't a human soul, nevertheless, we acted as if it did have one.” Isn't this the beginning of the end for the rather trite conclusion at the end of the poem—that you should love “All things both great and small” (7.615), because God made and loves them? By the late eighteenth century this conclusion was already trite. It sounds like a regression from the extraordinary stance of the sailors, who are willing to “suspend their belief,” their “lifeworld” (a good God made and loves all creatures, in a paternalistic, safe fashion), and treat an “it” as a “soul.”

Far from pantheism, what the sailors achieve in Part 1 is in fact a radical form of non-theistic Christianity, taking seriously the idea that God died on the cross. The death of God and the death of the theistic cultural lifeworld (“To walk together to the kirk, / And all together pray,” 7.605–606—n.b. the Scots dialect, which localizes the sentiment within a certain cultural horizon), with its comforting concentric hierarchies (the “goodly company” of “Old men, and babes, and loving friends...,” 7.604, 7.608), provide far more plausible explanations for why the Wedding Guest leaves the “bridegroom's door” “like one that hath been stunned, / And is of sense forlorn” (7.621–623), than the editorializing injunction to love “all things” (7.615). The bottom has fallen out of the Wedding Guest's world. Why?

Because the encounters with sentient beings in The Ancient Mariner are not encounters with members of a holistic lifeworld. They are encounters with what I call the strange stranger, the ultimate way of welcoming (other) life forms. More on this as we proceed. But for now let's note a startling conclusion. This is not a pantheist poem at all. In fact, what makes it most “ecological” is what makes it least pantheist. What makes it ecological is its disturbing, relentless intimacy, intimacy with the “it,” with Death and Life-in-Death, with “slimy things” (4.238), and so on.

Maybe the sailors are desperate for help. Maybe they are lonely. Whatever the reason, they greet the Albatross “As if it had been a Christian soul,” half knowing that their response is exorbitant. This greeting is perverse. Ecological ideology has thus far been virile, masculine, heteronormative, ablist and extravert (what else is wrong with it?!). The Ancient Mariner and his crew appear to outline a way of ecological existence that is still in our future. Beyond nature, beyond the lifeworld (“Below the kirk, below the hill,” 1.23), beyond holism, beyond sentimentalism.

Just as the Albatross emerges from the thick, intense “element” of ice and fog, as if the ice and fog had grown a face, so the sailors pick “it” out of the surrounding field of “it”s and “hail it,” welcome it “in God's name” (1.65–66). This is on the way to love at its extreme: out of “all things” in the Universe (7.615), I pick you. It already has something “evil” about it, something disrupting to the cozy lifeworld. Far from being a gesture of pantheist inclusiveness and holism, the welcome radically disturbs the “balance of nature.”

To love another creature is a perverse choice, not a “letting be” or a snuggling together in a predetermined lifeworld. Isn't the message of Frankenstein, which borrows heavily from this poem, to love sentient beings as people even when they aren't people? We are getting into cyborg territory here, and we will have to think about Artificial Intelligence, about treating all “it”s as “you.”

The Albatross is the second disturbing “face” in the poem. We've already experienced a rupture of the lifeworld with the presence of the Ancient Mariner himself, who to the Wedding Guest also appears as an “It”: “It is an ancient Mariner” (1.1). This stranger too has the disturbing inertia of sheer existence, what Lévinas calls the “there is.” Lévinas's image of the “there is” is the night: “I pass, like night, from land to land” says the Mariner, a walking poem (7.586). This walking poem, the “saying” of the Mariner, outlives and drastically dominates the Mariner as flesh and blood, “wrenching” him with “agony” (7.577–578) and compelling him to speak it. It is the Mariner who tacks on the trite sentiment that we live in a lifeworld that is not to be disrupted. The “Mariner-poem” speaks a far more disturbing truth. (See David Haney's book on Coleridge and ethics for further discussion; and see Paul Youngquist's review too).

The sailors' welcome was prepared for, “in the offing,” otherwise the Albatross would just have been another phenomenon of the “element.” The sailors, in other words, were already in a position of vulnerability towards the other, already marked by the other's existence. Existence is already coexistence. The Albatross is the Messianic “arrivant,” the absolutely unexpected arrival, the one we can never predict, but whose shadow falls into our world, in the disturbing proximity of all strangers.

In the same way, the “It is” of the ancient Mariner himself (1.1) compels us to imagine his existence prior to the beginning of the poem itself. He's already there, as if some lines were missing: “Who the hell is that? It is an ancient Mariner.” Any attempt to create a cozy world thus edits out this existence, beyond the beginning. Beyond the lifeworld, beyond Being, the ecological thought is intimacy with the strange stranger. (More about them in the next post.)

(When I use “beyond” in the previous paragraph, I mean it in a special sense—not as in “over yonder” in a more hugely encompassing horizon than we can grasp, but “right here,” too close for comfort.)

The Judaeo-Christian reading of this poem is by no means at odds with the most profoundly ecological one. They are the same reading.

Shelley did have it right. Poems are from the future.

Onwards, onwards to line 66!

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The ecological thought, part second

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At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.63–66)

Hi again. So here we have the fateful bird, emerging from the ice and fog, from the intense, oppressive atmosphere of sheer existence. Lévinas calls this “the element.” One is immersed in it.

The ice and fog already imply coexistence of some kind. Beyond the sort of “world” that Heidegger is after, I think. Something less “handy,” less to do with a horizon of meaning (you can't see through all that fog in any case). The ecological thought tries to think “below” Heidegger. Heidegger is where more ecological criticism bottoms out. He's the favorite of Deep Ecology because of this. We must engage with Heidegger rather than flee, otherwise we leave things like “world“ intact—things that I claim are part of the problem. Have a read of what Slavoj Zizek says:

“what we need is an ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on” (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 445 (in a chapter on nature, in a section called “Ecology against Nature”).

The idea of being immersed in a “lifeworld” is an ideological obstacle to thinking ecologically, which is, I claim, at its most fundamental level, a radical intimacy with other beings. I discuss this in Ecology without Nature.

So here comes the Albatross, “Thorough” the fog—right the way through it, to here, to this side, as it were. Up close and personal. It does not come from some beyond “outside” the fog. It comes from within the fog. It comes from within existence itself.

Infinity it not “over there” in some beyond. It is right here, even in the fog itself. It's one of those entities we are becoming more and more familiar with as part of the humiliation of ecology, the humiliation that brings us closer to the Earth (and literally earth). Marx, Freud, and Darwin all humiliate human beings by decentering their place. The fog stands for what I call “material infinity”—things that are profoundly hard to grasp that are on this side of reality.

In many ways, abstract infinity is easier than say 4.5 billion (the age of the Earth in years). Try to visualize 4.5 billion of anything. Life on Earth presents us with this “very large finitude.” Now put a face on life forms. Assume that they are subjects, people like you and me (or at least, bad imitations of them, like you and me). This is infinity on this side of reality. Abstract void is easier to handle than the void of another person.

This is the Albatross, the face of the fog, existence as a person (beyond “personification”), approaching us in our vulnerability. “Thorough the fog it came”—like “Out of the sea came he” (Coleridge's description of the sun). Suddenly it's there, still an “it” in the grammar, but also a “he” or a “she”—a person. There's no in-between moment when the Alabtross is far away, then kind of close, then... (This will affect our reading of another figure emerging from the distance, the Death Ship of Part 3).

Coleridge is great for thinking the scary environment of now. This environment is nothing other than life forms themselves.

Stay tuned, close readers!

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The ecological thought, part second

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At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.63–66)

Hi again. So here we have the fateful bird, emerging from the ice and fog, from the intense, oppressive atmosphere of sheer existence. Lévinas calls this “the element.” One is immersed in it.

The ice and fog already imply coexistence of some kind. Beyond the sort of “world” that Heidegger is after, I think. Something less “handy,” less to do with a horizon of meaning (you can't see through all that fog in any case). The ecological thought tries to think “below” Heidegger. Heidegger is where more ecological criticism bottoms out. He's the favorite of Deep Ecology because of this. We must engage with Heidegger rather than flee, otherwise we leave things like “world“ intact—things that I claim are part of the problem. Have a read of what Slavoj Zizek says:

“what we need is an ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on” (In Defense of Lost Causes, p. 445 (in a chapter on nature, in a section called “Ecology against Nature”).

The idea of being immersed in a “lifeworld” is an ideological obstacle to thinking ecologically, which is, I claim, at its most fundamental level, a radical intimacy with other beings. I discuss this in Ecology without Nature.

So here comes the Albatross, “Thorough” the fog—right the way through it, to here, to this side, as it were. Up close and personal. It does not come from some beyond “outside” the fog. It comes from within the fog. It comes from within existence itself.

Infinity it not “over there” in some beyond. It is right here, even in the fog itself. It's one of those entities we are becoming more and more familiar with as part of the humiliation of ecology, the humiliation that brings us closer to the Earth (and literally earth). Marx, Freud, and Darwin all humiliate human beings by decentering their place. The fog stands for what I call “material infinity”—things that are profoundly hard to grasp that are on this side of reality.

In many ways, abstract infinity is easier than say 4.5 billion (the age of the Earth in years). Try to visualize 4.5 billion of anything. Life on Earth presents us with this “very large finitude.” Now put a face on life forms. Assume that they are subjects, people like you and me (or at least, bad imitations of them, like you and me). This is infinity on this side of reality. Abstract void is easier to handle than the void of another person.

This is the Albatross, the face of the fog, existence as a person (beyond “personification”), approaching us in our vulnerability. “Thorough the fog it came”—like “Out of the sea came he” (Coleridge's description of the sun). Suddenly it's there, still an “it” in the grammar, but also a “he” or a “she”—a person. There's no in-between moment when the Alabtross is far away, then kind of close, then... (This will affect our reading of another figure emerging from the distance, the Death Ship of Part 3).

Coleridge is great for thinking the scary environment of now. This environment is nothing other than life forms themselves.

Stay tuned, close readers!

Parent Resource: 

RC Blog

The ecological thought, part first

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Hi again—back from my Q&A at the ASLE conference in Edinburgh. That was quick wasn't it?! Thanks to videoconferencing I didn't have to move an inch. I made a dvd of my keynote (in front of a “live audience” as they say in sitcoms), then did the Q&A via the cheap new Polycom software on the PC. Less carbon, less bankruptcy, more bang for my buck—effectively I gave the talk twice and received two lots of feedback.

Thanks so much to Greg Garrard, Tom Bristow, Margaret Ferguson, Terry Gifford, and the tech teams (Alastair Taylor, Mike Luthi and Bill Sykes) for making this work.

Okay—ready for some close reading? Here we go:

The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God's name.

It ate the food it ne'er had eat,
And round and round it flew.
The ice did split with a thunder-fit;
The helmsman steered us through!

And a good south wind sprung up behind;
The Albatross did follow,
And every day, for food or play,
Came to the mariner's hollo!

In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud,
It perched for vespers nine;
Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke bright,
Glimmered the white moon-shine.

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look'st thou so?”—With my cross-bow
I shot the Albatross.

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1.59–82)

“Like noises in a swound”! When I was at high school I wasn't sure what this meant, so my friend James (who ended up teaching at McGill) and I decided arbitrarily that for “swound” we would read “underground parking lot.” Another case of urbanature?! In any case, the atmosphere is wonderfully evoked by the “here...there...all around” trope. This is a place of sheer existence, of what Emmanuel Lévinas would have called the “rustling of the there is.” What a world. It reminds me of this one. Today in Davis, CA, we are wearing surgical masks to screen ourselves from the smoke from the pervasive fires (“the smoke is here, the smoke is there...”). Global warming is like this, isn't it? You can't have that neutral, easy conversation about the weather any more—it either trails off into silence, or becomes threateningly poised over the word “global warming,” and as soon as someone mentions that, the conversation is pretty much over. There is no weather any more. There is climate—as Ashton Nichols pointed out, we now have the computing power to map this global phenomenon (you need terabytes of RAM to do it, I gather). But no weather. Coleridge seems to anticipate this by putting his Mariner in the extreme ambience of ice. See Eric Wilson's very interesting book about ice called The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination.

Okay, I'm out. More soon!

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The ecological thought—introductory

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Hi everyone—Tim Morton here. I was asked to start blogging here on ecological issues, and I'm delighted to accept the invitation. I'm actually working on a book right now called The Ecological Thought. It's kind of the prequel to Ecology without Nature. I mean this in a rigorous way—not just the fact that the first book implies a view that I outline more deeply in the second one. I mean that in a rigorous sense, this “ecological thought” weirdly creeps up on you from the future. The best I can compare it to is Shelley's idea of poetry, that it's like a shadow from the future that somehow looms into the world of the present (A Defence of Poetry). Anyway, stay tuned.

Here's a good question for starters: am I an ecocritic? I fancy that what I'm doing is ecological literary criticism, but I'm not sure it's ecocriticism. Already I don't belong on this blog! Ecology without Nature argues that in order to have ecology, you have to give up Nature.

Lots of people don't like this idea. It's like I'm stealing their toy. I recently had an interesting conversation with Donna Haraway about it—of all people she was the very last I would have suspected of worrying about me stealing the Nature toy. But she was.

Her argument was basically about "worlding"—ideas and practices constitute "worlds" not just ideas; people do things in these worlds and create values in them, etc. (You will see if you've read my book that the "worlding" idea itself recursively falls prey to my "hand Nature over" gambit!) I thought of a good answer, but I was too scared to say: "The Nazis had lots of ideas, and those ideas constituted a world. If your argument is valid, we should have allowed the Nazis to have their world and should not have intervened in the Holocaust, etc." Preserving an idea because it makes a world for you isn't that great, I think. (Not even because it's good or even useful, mind you.) I'm sure there was a whole wild world of witch ducking stools too.


I thought this blog would be a good place to do mini close readings that point the way towards the ecological thought—so expect some riffs in search of an album, some organs without bodies. First up: to whom are we speaking when we say "Hello"? (With a little help from Coleridge.)

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